The making of Organic Coconut Sugar
The making of Coconut Sugar is originally from the people of Mae Klong province, Thailand. This handicraft skills were passed on from generation to generation, though it’s fading away, due to the change in environment, population growth and unfair economic system; local produce are not able to compete with the price of mass production.
It’s not possible to fix the problem with a small group of local business who sells high quality organic coconut sugar. To fix the problem, they need the help from consumer to understand why we need to support local produce and what is the benefit to the producer, consumer and the environment. It’s all about building a good relationship between us and not about taking the most advantages and profit from each other.
In this post I will be writing about the story behind every drop of coconut sugar that is produced with patience and craftsmanship, to deliver the best quality of sugar to every kitchen. The story is based on Pien Yod Tarn – The Organic coconut sugar community.
On this day, Clay stove was filled with charcoal and lit once again, the tools are dusted and polished, ready to start off a new journey.
It’s been 30 years since The Clay Sugar stove was last used. Today, it’s alive and running by Sugar craftsmen, who are 70+ year old. Despite the age, they are still skillful, proficient, active and passionate like the good old day.
There are many steps involved in the process of making coconut sugar. These include climbing up coconut trees at dawn, bend down pre-mature coconut flower, slice the tip of the flower and wait until bamboo cylinders are filled with raw sugar liquid. Afterward, simmer the raw sugar with constant stirring technique for a few hours. In the afternoon, they repeat the whole process again and the routine keeps going every day.
These men are passionate about their craftsmanship and they keep their business in the traditional and sustainable way. They named themselves Pien Yod Tarn (Great Passion for Drops of Sugar) to describe their work ethic.
A story behind Clay Sugar stove, by Mr. Thew (The sugar craftsman)
“My parents were from the Bang Khon Thee River. They bought 4 acres of land with the price of 200 Thai Baht, to farm coconut sugar. They ordered the plant, but it was canceled. My dad wasn’t happy so he decided to go to a fresh market and bought a whole lot of coconut trees from there. In the beginning, the trees weren’t giving much sugar since they weren’t the right breed, but it was ok to start off with.
I helped with collecting bamboo cylinders. I wasn’t allowed to carry a knife at the time because I was too little, therefore I can’t help with other jobs. When I turned 9 years old, I was able to fully work through the whole process of making coconut sugar. I left the school at the same time. My dad wanted me to continue to study, but I decided not to do it because all of my siblings were studying and no one helps out with the job.
Afterward, I decided to buy a boat and cruise the river to sell the sugar. Back then, boats are the main transportation, there was no road. I worked with one of my friends, he has got a knife and I have a ladder. After we collect sugar, I would ride the boat to send the sugar and my girlfriend will stew the sugar. We divided the income between us after the delivery.
After 1988, I stopped riding the boat because we now have roads everywhere. It was the same year that I stopped making coconut sugar due to the drought. I started shrimp farming instead and it didn’t go very well. I ended up paying most of the income to the land lord and chemical/ processed food to run the farm. It wasn’t great, so I stopped doing it. Afterward, I decided to experiment on different agricultures that were on a high demand in commercial market, but they all didn’t work out.
Later, I once again start coconut farming in the traditional way like how my parents used to do. I met Kae, who is the person running Pien Yod Tarn and got to work with her from then until now.”
Today, Mr. Thew is 78 years old. He is still healthy and strong. He became a lecturer at Pien Yod Tarn community and he looks after warps farm (Warps help catching warm from coconut trees)
How to make coconut sugar – 8 essential steps
To make coconut sugar requires good skills and there are many steps throughout the whole process. I will be explaining to you the essential parts and conclude those part into 8 steps, to make it easy to understand and to get the main ideas on how the coconut sugar is made.
1) Bend down the flower
Mr. Thew collects coconut sugar from pre-mature coconut flowers. Before coconut flowers bloom, they look like a bundle or a long stem. In Thai we describe it as a trunk (like an elephant trunk, according to their shape).
As you can see in the picture, the coconut flower stays horizontally and parallel to the grown. Before Mr. Thew slices the flower tip to collect sugar, he needs to bend down the flower. It can take up to 7 days for the flower to bend into the right position.
2) Slicing coconut flower to collect raw sugar
Once the flower is bent to the right position, it will stay and there is no need to repeat the process again. The next step is to slice the surface of coconut flower. When Mr. Thew slices the surface of a coconut flower, he will place a bamboo cylinder to collect raw sugar that comes out of the flower. Every 8 hours he will need to slice again because the surface of the coconut flower is dried and therefore, the raw sugar will not come out. To slice coconut flower isn’t easy, if it isn’t done well, there will be less liquid coming out.
3) Collecting the raw sugar
Finally, we reach to the step where we get the sugar! It’s not yet consumable though. There are a few more steps to go.
Mr. Thew collects sugar twice a day. The Morning Sugar and the Evening Sugar. The Morning Sugar is collected from 5 am in the morning, after he takes the bamboo cylinder that is filled with raw liquid sugar in the morning, he puts a new cylinder and leave it there for the evening collection at 4 pm.
At the bottom of bamboo cylinders, Mr. Thew puts Payom wood to preserve raw sugar. Payom wood a natural preservative. It’s 100% non-toxic.
4) Filtering the raw sugar
Raw sugar needs to be filtered before stewing because there are bees, warps, ants and Payom wood pieces mixed inside. Mr. Thew uses a thin filter cloth to filter raw sugar as shown in the image above.
5) Stewing the raw sugar
Stewing process is categorized into 3 stages:
5.1) Fresh Coconut sugar
– After filtering the sugar. The next step is to stew it. The first stage of stewing, we will get what we called Fresh Coconut Sugar. The process is to cook raw sugar until it comes to a boil then take it out of the pan.
The flavour, taste and colour of fresh sugar vary depends on the raw sugar of each batch. Raw sugar that is collected in a cooler day tends to have a better quality and taste.
5.2) Coconut flower syrup
– Is the second stage where the raw sugar is stewed until it comes thicker and the sweetness level is reached to 75 Brix. At this stage, the sugar will produce lots of bubbles and it can get overflows. There is a special bamboo ring called “Koh” it’s used to cover the pan and shrink the bubbles.
The Bubbles are collected to make coconut sugar vinegar. It takes 2 years to ferment a good quality vinegar.
5.3) Thick coconut sugar
– At the third stage, the sugar becomes very thick and reached the level of sweetness of 90 Brix. We can observe the sugar by its bubbles; if it’s ready it will be thick and gooey, with car. Afterwards, the sugar is taken off the stove and it’s now ready to whisk in the air with a special tool.
6) Filter cooked sugar
The sugar gets filtered again to make sure that it’s clean and ready to be consumed.
7) Whisk in the air
Mr. Thew uses a special whisk to whisk in the air. It allows the sugar to cool down and stop the cooking process. It will also fluff up the sugar and the sugar will turn into lighter colour, thus, easier to use and more appealing.
8) Package the sugar
Finally, we have come to the last step!
The sugar packaging is different from time to time and the name of coconut sugar is changed accordingly (in Thai). The packing process needs to be done quickly while the sugar is still warm otherwise it’s going to get hard and therefore, not possible to package.
Voila! Our coconut sugar is done and dusted!
The skill of coconut sugar making belongs to Mae Klong people, a century ago and it’s passed on from generation to generation. However, today, the tradition and knowledge are fading away. To document the processes and knowledges is a good way to keep a record and to acknowledge the work to consumer for a better understanding of where and how the sugar is made.
Personally, I think the most important thing about consuming products is to know how they are made, who made them and where they are from. This isn’t just a way to understand what you eat and whether the product is safe. It’s also to support healthy business that is fair for consumer, producer and the environment.
Thank you very much to Pien Yod Tarn for allowing me to use the pictures and informations about the making of organic coconut sugar. If you are interested in buying their products you can get in touch with them via the link bellow.